July 16, 2021

Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell Is the New Chair of the Department of Theatre!

On July 16, 2020, Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell was named as the interim chairperson of the Department of Theatre, following the departure of outgoing chair Harris Smith. One tumultuous, historical year later, as we prepare for the challenges and opportunities presented by a new school year, we are pleased to announce that Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell has officially been appointed chair of the Department of Theatre.


Sydney brings to the position a wealth of administrative experience, having served for several years on the CFA Executive Committee and Deans Cabinet in her role as Associate Dean for Research. She also holds a vast amount of well-earned support, respect, and gratitude for her willingness to serve the Department and College. 

Due in part to having witnessed her successful “trial by fire” this past year in leading the Department through such extraordinarily challenging times, I have the utmost confidence in Sydney’s abilities to effectively serve in this capacity well into the future.

John W. Scheib, Dean
University of Utah College of Fine Arts



Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell earned a PhD in Theatre History and Dramatic Criticism from the University of Washington’s School of Drama in 2004, and received her undergraduate degree from Carleton College in Minnesota. Before shifting her focus to applied theatre, Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell served as a dramaturg on more than 20 productions at professional theatres in the United States, including Pioneer Theatre Company, where she has collaborated with Artistic Director Karen Azenberg. At the University of Utah she has taught History of Theatre, New Plays Workshop, Dramaturgy, and a variety of dramatic literature courses; she was head of Theatre Studies from 2005 to 2016. As an Associate Professor, Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell experienced the department’s strengths and its needs firsthand; as Associate Dean for Research, she gained a deeper understanding of the department’s relationship with the College of Fine Arts, as well as the breadth of opportunities available at a top-tier research university.

In addition to her practical experience as an educator and dramaturg, Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell brings to the position a long-time commitment to social, political, and environmental justice, and a keen interest in the impact of the arts on social and emotional well-being. These perspectives have informed every aspect of her work, and her desire to employ theatre as a tool to make positive change has led to a wide range of projects and collaborations in both clinical and educational settings. Previously, Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell worked with a multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni (Biology) and funded through the National Science Foundation to explore using theatre, narrative, and ecological restoration as tools to help people to shift the way they see themselves in relation to science. She also recently collaborated with an interdisciplinary team to create a video series intended to support families of children with Down Syndrome.

Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell’s current research focuses on the application of theatre techniques in medical education. Along with Dr. Gretchen A. Case, she is Principal Investigator on a randomized controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of a rehearsal framework for improving the interpersonal communication skills of medical learners.  This study is funded by a NEA Research Art Works grant. Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell also regularly collaborates with multidisciplinary teams at the Utah Center for Excellence in ELSI Research (UCEER) to leverage the arts—particularly theatre and storytelling—to create health education and support materials for women and families. Her new book, Theatre, one of several titles in Emerald Publishing’s Arts for Health Series, offers practical guidance on incorporating theatre into professional health and social care environments, community spaces, and the family home.  

Since Maud May Babcock first taught “dramatics” at the University of Utah in the 1890s, only three women have been appointed as chair of the department. Each oversaw periods of change and growth: Professor Babcock's efforts led to the formation of the Speech Department, which she led from its inception in 1920. The Department of Speech turned into the Department of Theatre and Ballet, which became the Department of Theatre and Film. With Marilyn Holt as chair, the Department of Theatre finally became a distinct entity in 1986. Now, over thirty years after Dr. Holt's retirement in 1988, Dr. Cheek-O’Donnell is the third woman to lead the department. As we navigate an uncertain but exciting future, we look forward to the ways we will benefit from her experience as a dramaturg; her passion for social, political, and environmental justice; and her penchant for bringing theatre into unexpected places.


As a dramaturg, you’re not the one steering the ship; you’re there to act as a navigator. You provide support and encourage conversations so the production—or in this case, the department—can succeed at what it’s setting out to do. It's not about dictating things, or micromanaging. It’s about helping define a space where people can make their own discoveries and contribute to telling the same story. The work belongs to everyone. We all have a stake in the outcome, so we should all engage in the process of reaching that outcome. So you research and you observe, and you start with questions: “Who is this for? What are we trying to accomplish? Are we succeeding—not as a production, but as a department?” If it were a production, the director would decide the vision, but this show started before I got here, and it’s going to go on after me. It’s incredibly exciting. We get to look at who we’ve been, and who we are, and where we want to go, and I get to ask, “How can I, as chair, support this collaboration? How far can we go together?”

                                               Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell, Chair
Department of Theatre